Let me say this. I’ve always loved the way iFi’s portable DAC/Amps sound.
I still have an iFi nano iDSD LE (currently $139 on Amazon) that I purchased eons ago, and I have heard just about every one they have put out since then, including the nano iDSD Black Label, and the xDSD.
My only issue is they were somewhat bulky. I wasn’t inclined to slip an iFi DAC in my pocket and run down to Starbucks. I usually have my laptop bag, so it’s not a huge deal, but I always thought it would be nice to have something sleeker.
Well, iFi must’ve read my mind, because their latest portable DAC/Amp, the $149 iFi hip-dac, is more pocketable than past designs. When I first took it out of the box, I couldn’t believe how thin and compact it was. The pics don’t do it justice.
It’s bigger than USB Stick and Dongle type DAC/Amps, but they don’t have all the features the hip-dac does. Read on for more details regarding this remarkable headphone amp!
The review unit I have was sent to me by iFi in exchange for an honest review. That is what follows.
Build and Features
As I already said, the hip-dac is slim and lightweight, with a length/height/width of 102 x 70 x 14 mm. That equates to about four inches long, two and three-quarters inches wide, and a half-inch thick. It only weighs about four and a half ounces, a lot less than my cell phone.
It’s shaped like a liquor flask, except smaller, and it’s constructed of teal (iFi calls it Petrol Blue) aluminum with a copper analog volume knob. It’s a solid package that feels sturdy in hand. The buttons (Power Match and Xbass) next to the knob also feel good and press in with a satisfying click.
On the other side of the knob are two output jacks, one 4.4mm balanced and one 3.5mm single-ended. Also, flanking the volume knob are LEDs that change color to indicate the format and sampling rate of the digital file that is playing.
On the reverse side of the hip dac is a USB 3.0 Type-A male port which functions as a digital input and a USB C port solely for charging the internal battery. The battery is rated for up to 12 hours of use, depending on volume level, etc.
The male port is said to be sturdier than a female connection, and it also accepts Apple’s Lightning to USB Camera Adaptor (not included) directly. That should make the iPhone fans happy.
While the hip-dac doesn’t come with a lightning adaptor for use with Apple devices, it does come with USB-A male to USB-C adaptor for connection to Android smartphones, and a USB-A male to USB-A female cable for use with a laptop. It also comes with a mini USB-C for charging.
You also get some non-slip rubber feet for placing the hip-dac on a desktop or similar surface.
Like the majority of iFi’s portable DAC/Amps, the hip-dac’s DAC section is based around a Burr-Brown chip with True Native design for bit-perfect handling of PCM and DSD. As usual, iFi claims support for some ridiculous sampling rates, including PCM and DXD up to 384kHz, and DSD up to 256.
I don’t have any 384kHz files, and I assume you don’t either, but I rather my gear be over-specced than under-specced. BTW, since this is an iFi DAC, you also get support for MQA, which unlocks access to TIDAL’s “Masters” content.
On the amp side, you also get iFi’s popular balanced design, which they tend to incorporate in all their amps, now from the bottom to the top. Now they also claim input from John Curl of Parasound fame, which can only be a good thing, understanding his profound influence on amplifier design.
As far as power ratings go, hip-dac has a nominal or constant power rating of 400mW, then up to 700mw from the balanced output depending on headphone impedance.
From my experience, it has no problem driving most full-sized headphones. I tried the Focal Elear, Sennheiser/Drop HD58X Jubilee, and Mr. Speakers Aeon Flow Closed, and it pushed all three to ear-splitting volumes even while set to low gain.
Like it’s big desktop brother, the ZEN DAC, it has the PowerMatch switchable gain, with its two-position high-low setting. High for full-size headphones, and low for IEM’s and the like.
Also, like the ZEN DAC, the hip dac has a bass boost circuit. Here it’s called XBass, and on the ZEN, it’s called TrueBass, but they pretty much do the same thing.
Like I said in the past, I’m a fan of how iFi does bass enhancement. It’s the only one that sounds natural to me. There’s no artifacts or echo, just a subtle addition of warmth. I like to use it with neutral headphones when I want to add a little excitement.
What we love: The hip-dac’s size and weight are perfect for heading out on the road, the buttons are laid out nicely, and the volume knob turns smoothly. Overall build quality is excellent, and the feature set (balanced out, L/H gain, XBass, file support) is impressive for a compact DAC/Amp like this one.
Watch out for: There’s no marking on the volume knob for reference. There’s also no carrying case or bag included as there was with past iFi products. (However, they do include the USB-C adapter, which they didn’t before) No dedicated line output.
Listening to the iFi hip-dac
I tested the hip-dac with my HP Envy X360 laptop using Tidal and Roon to playback MQA and 24-bit files from my NAS drive.
I was first amazed at how smooth and crisp the hip-dac sounded. There was no harshness on the top end like you get with a lot of inexpensive DAC/Amps. I played “Father Stretch” from Kanye West’s Sunday Choir, and I was pleased with the full and rich presentation I got from the Mr. Speakers Aeon Flow Closed (high gain on, XBass off). Like most iFi DACs, it’s warmish sounding, but still balanced, not overdone at all. You can press the XBass button for some additional warmth if needed.
I liked the synergy with the Focal Elear a little better than with the Mr. Speakers headphones. I ran the hip-dac on Low Gain (XBass off) with those cans, and the sound was a lot more transparent with the Focal’s. The open-backed headphones also gave the music some room to breathe, extending way out beyond the cups in a way the AFC couldn’t match. (even though the AFC did an excellent job for a closed headphone)
The sound was more three dimensional and dynamic on the Elear; it was an ideal match. I also tried the Sennheiser/Drop HD58X Jubilee, and it also sounded great with the hip-dac, almost on par with the AFC. It wasn’t as detailed or transparent as the Elear, it had a natural, liquid sound that was very enjoyable.
Unfortunately, I haven’t heard the competition from Fiio or Topping, but I did have the similarly priced iFi nano iDSD LE on hand, and through the SE jack, the sound quality was about the same. Keep in mind, the hip-dac has several features the nano iDSD LE doesn’t have, like Xbass, Gain Control, Balanced out, etc.
I also connected the hip-dac to my LG V40’s USB-C port and was able to play files from the USB Audio Player Pro app with no issue. I also got the TIDAL app to work with it, but I didn’t get the final MQA unfold as I did with UAPP.
The hip-dac is iFi smallest DAC/Amp to date, and it’s also their cheapest to date with the array of features the hip-dac has. I love its ability to drive full-size headphones with enthusiasm, and I also love the crisp, wide-open, transparent sound. If you’re looking for a lightweight DAC/Amp to improve the audio from your laptop or smartphone, this is a no-brainer. Especially if you already love the iFi sound signature.
Perfect for the desk at work, or your local coffee shop. Highly Recommended!
Pair it with these to make a system:
I’m an audio writer who started as a young audio salesman/consumer electronics professional back in the late 90s. That’s where I discovered the magic of 2-Channel sound. My thirst for great sound has led me on a delightful music quest that continues today.